Figuring out what to write about for this post has been a challenge. I’m not currently teaching American literature, or literature at all for that matter. Instead, this semester I’m teaching a professional communication course for engineering students, and I’m co-teaching a seminar on manufacturing. Don’t get me wrong—that range of teaching is one of the most intellectually fulfilling parts of my job. Furthermore, as I’ve found in thinking about what to write for this post, having a semester “off” from teaching a seminar of my own has also given me an unique opportunity to see the course I taught last fall from a new perspective. So, in that spirit, for PALS this semester I’ll be writing about course design, or rather, course redesign.
In today’s post, I thought I’d work through my process for redesigning the seminar on the Age of Revolutions that I taught for the first time in Fall 2017. In our program, our courses go through a rigorous review process, first for provisional approval (to teach it the first time) and then once more for permanent approval (in order to teach it in the future without further review). Since this is the second time I’m teaching the course and it is now eligible for permanent approval, it’s particularly important for me to reflect critically on my course design. While I do a lot of thinking about teaching, it’s almost always on the run…both literally and figuratively. But, at some point, you have to stop and reflect with real intention and attention. That’s what I’m going to try to do now.
Starting with Student Feedback
Reading and considering the feedback my students provided via their course evaluations was one of the first steps in re-thinking the course. Much of the feedback I had predicted. The students all noticed how the breadth of the course title (Age of Revolutions) didn’t really capture the focus of the course. Fair enough. Initially I had aspirations of somehow using the American Revolution as a way to get at revolutions more broadly, which we did to some extent but not enough to justify the title. The students also wanted to do more with the 18th/19th-century collections at the Cleveland Museum of Art and Dittrick Museum of Medical History They really enjoyed Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton and really hated reading The Female Review (I say “reading” because they enjoyed the questions it raises about gender but they found it to be a slog). The students also raved about The Invention of Air, a book that examines the intersection of the scientific revolution with the American Revolution.
While on the surface it might seem like the students liked easy things to read and disliked the texts that challenged them, our discussions over the course of the semester suggest otherwise. Over and over, my students indicated that they were surprised by how engaging and clear the pieces we read were; where they expected historians to write dry, tedious tomes, they found rich narratives that made the 18th century seem not so distant. This was the big takeaway for me from the semester: build a class around readings that engage students and disrupt their assumptions about academic writing, and use history to think about narrative and the stories we tell about our past, our present, and our future. To do that, I will continue to assign pieces written for wider audiences alongside scholarly pieces. Scholars of early America have embraced public writing in ways that other scholars have not, and in part, this is why I’ve been teaching the American side of the 18th century in my seminars at Case Western. That so many of those scholars and public intellectuals are women and minorities makes the inclusion of a wider range of writing by scholars that much more important. And, on a STEM-focused campus, it feels even more urgent that I introduce my students to writers like Joanne Freeman, Annette Gordon-Reed, and Lyra D. Monteiro who are changing the landscape of academic scholarship.
In light of my students’ feedback and my own considerations over the last month or so, I’ve come up with a few goals for the Fall 2018 iteration of my course:
- I want to design a course that complicates the traditional view of the American Revolution and the founding of the nation.
- I want to design a course that contextualizes the war and founding within its political, social, and cultural contexts.
- I want to design a course that introduces students to the war and founding from the perspective of minority figures.
- I want to design a course that challenges students’ assumptions about scholarship on the revolutionary period and early republic.
The Big Questions
In thinking about how to meet these goals, I’ve run into some questions that I’ve been struggling to answer. How do I bring a narrower focus to the course? How do I ensure that it is still accessible to first-semester students? To begin to answer that question, I have to deal with Hamilton: what is its role in the class and in our inquiry? And, the million dollar question for me as a literature scholar, how do I integrate literature in the course? (Or, alternatively, should I? And is that ok?)
I can go one of two ways with Hamilton. It’s either just one of several representations of the Revolution that we consider, or, it’s a representation of the revolution and of the early republic that we respond to and, perhaps, push back against. I like Hamilton a lot (still haven’t seen it and, at this point, I’m just assuming I’ll catch it on the 10- and 20-year anniversary tours like Rent) but I wonder about its staying power. Has the Hamilton moment passed? Should it be at the center of an entire course?
One of the greatest challenges of teaching the 18th century in a first-year seminar is that students come to the course with little to no knowledge of the period, even in the American context. Of course, the entire point of these types of courses is to broaden students’ knowledge, to expose them to new ideas, and to invite them to respond to those ideas. With that in mind, I think I’ve talked myself into going all in on Hamilton. It does all the things I want a text to do in a class: Hamilton engages students and disrupts their assumptions, it opens up conversations about the past as well as the present and the future, and it presents history and the stories we tell about ourselves as narratives. My hope is that putting Hamilton at the center of the course will make the 18th century more accessible to students and open up avenues of inquiry for them in the process.
How then do I design the course to support students in responding to Hamilton? My idea at the moment is to dedicate the first month of the semester to a close study of the musical during which the students catalogue the assumptions the show makes about the figures, the culture, and the events that the show depicts. Then, we will place Hamilton within the growing critical context that surrounds it, which has raised questions about its representations of race, gender, and national identity in early America.
In the previous iteration of the course, I timed the focus on Hamilton in much the same way, and so I know that I can expect students to have reached a point where they are able to respond to the musical with a good deal of sophistication and nuance. However, this time, I want to help them to buttress their responses with knowledge of the time period that they almost certainly won’t have when they arrive in my classroom. To do that, I am putting together a reading list of texts from the revolutionary period and early republic that can serve as a measuring stick for us as we push back against the assumptions at work in the musical. Thus far, I’m considering works
- by women and by black writers such as Phillis Wheatley, Mercy Otis Warren, Judith Sargent Murray, and Olaudah Equiano.
- about individuals who had no means to have their voices heard, such as Ona Judge, whose story of escaping enslavement by George and Martha Washington has been told in a recent book by Erica Armstrong Dunbar, and Sally Hemings, who is referenced in Hamilton and whose story has been told by Annette Gordon-Reed.
- that demonstrate the period’s anxieties about national identity, foreignness, and that it means to be an American, such as Royall Tyler’s play The Contrast, Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, and excerpts from J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer.
You’ll notice that this list includes both fiction as well as non-fiction, which brings me to the final question that I’ll need to answer in order to redesign this course: what about literature? I think a lot about the ways that the current academic job market affects how faculty who teach in general education, first-year studies, and like programs conceive of their expertise and their professional identities. Both anecdotally and in a small-scale survey I conducted a few years ago, I’ve found that those of us in these sorts of positions can come to feel that a gulf develops between the work we began as graduate students and the work we have ended up doing as faculty. I’ve certainly felt this way, especially when it comes to teaching (or not teaching) literature. My training is in literary studies and criticism, but when I consider the goals and learning outcomes of the courses that I teach, literature isn’t always the best way to achieve those. So, another part of redesigning a course for me in the coming weeks is going to be thinking about the role that literature plays in it (or doesn’t). Next time, I’ll take up that question and share my progress on the redesign.